It is deeply exciting to be living at a time when new plays are aplenty and talented, often young, writers seem to be growing like wild flowers. While there may be a resulting fetish for the new and a hunger to pull the next Polly Stenham or Anya Reiss from the masses, a greater preoccupation should really be with which of these playwrights will still be having their work performed and studied thirty, forty, fifty years from now. Watching Dominic Cooke’s production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, which has transferred from the Royal Court, makes you realise that this is a play that will surely come back again and again because of what it says about society’s attitudes and the inescapability of one’s past.
Set in Chicago in 1959 and 2009 respectively, Norris’s play is cleverly structured in two halves that roughly mirror each other. It takes as its central focus racial bigotry and the personal prejudices that lie within us all, on many levels. Act I is based on Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, bringing characters to life that are only alluded to in Hansberry’s play – the white household nervously awaiting the arrival of a black family into their neighbourhood. As the neighbours gather in the household of Russ and Bev, who are selling their home, to discuss their new neighbours’ imminent arrival, their deep concerns about the effect it will have on house prices, as well as their more general racist attitudes, are brought to light.
Stuart McQuarrie is excellent as the more liberal-minded but moral coward Russ, his brooding, private presence building beautifully to a more emotional climax at the end of the act. And Sophie Thompson, while on the cusp of irritating, captures truthfully the bored, naive, but nevertheless caring housewife whose strained positivity towards black people is more endearing than insulting. Sam Spruell, Stephen Campbell Moore and Sarah Goldberg are all first-class as the meddling neighbours, their joviality filling the house with a superficial, sunny American buoyancy, but their views and concerns scattering an invisible poison throughout the home. And Lorna Brown is excellent as the dignified, poised black maid Francine who, along with her black husband (the slightly bumbling Albert, played excellently by Lucian Msamati) is forced to listen to the white folk tiptoe around – and sometimes stamp straight on – issues concerning the black folk.
The highlight of the act is Karl (Campbell Moore) overstepping an already overstepped mark in his racial outlook, prompting Russ to order him out of his home. Campbell Moore stands, flabbergasted, giggling with embarrassment and shock at the ultimatum, and refusing to budge. It’s one of the best representations of human awkwardness and incomprehension in the face of ignorance that I’ve seen on stage, and it leaves one feeling deeply uncomfortable about these characters.
What is brilliant about Norris’s portraits is that there is no moral leader – no character that spearheads the plight for equality of race. Some are more discreet and more sensitive to the assembled company, but the white people here all fundamentally share common views. Yet, amazingly, we don’t despise any of them. They are showing symptoms of their time and society, and their procrastinating is just an illustration of the warped views of the era. In a bizarre way, too, these characters are genuinely trying to do what they believe is right for their neighbourhood.
Norris’s humour is bold and cutting, yet so cleanly executed that it’s hilarious though often deeply uncomfortable. There is something morbidly funny and absurd about a black man having to listen to outright racial abuse, having just been invited enthusiastically into the home, while a deaf, pregnant woman (Betsy, played by Goldberg) shouts incoherent and intermittent opinions, at the same time as a do-good vicar tries to soften the caustic insults flying around the room.
The second act is framed by a dilapidated version of the first act’s set, with soiled floors, brown-stained walls and empty window panes. It is fifty years later and a group of people have come together to discuss the plans of Lindsey and Steve (Goldberg and Campbell Moore) to buy this same property, flatten the house and rebuild from scratch in what is now an all-black neighbourhood. While all the characters in this setting have take-out Starbucks cups, juggle the meeting with personal calls on their cell phones, and clearly have managed a family-work life effortlessly, the shocking thing about the situation is that the attitudes are just the same as those displayed in the first act, though in different guises. Beneath the gushingly empathetic surfaces, these characters are experiencing tensions and differences so rife that there is clearly no possibility of conciliation, not just between different races, but between men and women as well.
Norris’s particular skill in writing this act is that nothing has been tipped on its head or neatly turned inside out. Rather the tectonic plates of the action have all subtly shifted around so the slightly camp vicar in the first half (Spruell) is now an out-of-the-closet gay, the lawyer (previously Bev) is the daughter of the first act’s Karl and Betsy, and Lena (Brown) is the great niece of Francine, the maid. As you can see, it makes for a rather crooked family tree, but consequently the power dynamics are deeply engaging.
Goldberg and Campbell Moore are outstanding as the all-American young couple – beautiful, articulate, and expecting child, but deeply unhappy and tense underneath it all. Steve’s condescending comforting of his wife and her highly strung state is fabulously played out in dialogue that is so true to life as to leave you incredulous. The planning permission meeting is deliberately meandering and frustratingly tangential, but every exchange reveals so much about each character and the tensions that exist between them. Lena, essentially chairing the meeting, resides with a quiet dignity at the centre of it all, approaching the issues professionally and admirably. Yet the escalating hostility in the meeting leads to even her being stripped of all formality and revealing her prejudiced attitudes towards white people.
The importance and inescapability of history in our lives and society is symbolised by the huge trunk that Bev and Russ have been trying to move out of their home in the first act. We are led to believe it is full of the letters and memories of their now-deceased son. It is unmovable in the first act and ends up stolidly wedged on the staircase. In the second act, it is brought in by Dan the builder (McQuarrie) and sits, idly but obviously, in the centre of the stage, covered in dust, with no attempt from anyone to shift it or even to question what exactly it’s doing there. The attitudes, too, weigh heavily on these people and Norris leaves us wondering whether personal prejudice – the most dangerous, hidden kind – can ever really be conquered.